Nostalgic memories of my visits to Pakistan: 1996 to 2013 – II
Posted on November 26, 2021 | Author DR. UPENDRA KAUL
It turns out that the Pakistani High Commissioner to India, Mr. Shahid Malik, requested an appointment with me in 2012 while I was working at Fortis Escorts Hospital. He came to my office for a general check-up and spent time with me. I found him to be a very pleasant gentleman who was interested in my work and often called me directly or through the medical attaché of the High Commission. One fine day I received a message from a multinational pharmaceutical company SERDIA to visit Pakistan to lecture on high blood pressure and related issues focusing on one of their products. I showed my interest and asked them to go ahead. This was to take place in March 2012 and the speaking tour would involve Lahore, Faisalabad, Islamabad and Karachi. I informed Mr. Shahid of this development and he was very happy to help me with the VISA process.
I got the VISA without visiting the embassy through an embassy official who took my passport and documents for a day and came back with a visa for all cities and exempted from showing up to police stations. As there were no flights between the two countries, the choice was either to travel to Dubai and return to Lahore, or to obtain a visa on foot via the Wagah border near Amritsar. I chose the latter route and informed the SERDIA agents who were to take care of me. I flew from Delhi to Amritsar a day before my crossing to Pakistan from the overland route. I stayed overnight in a hotel after visiting the Golden Temple complex which I had never visited before. It was very impressive and one gets a good spiritual feeling there when seeing a large number of devotees and listening to the Gurbani of Guru Granth Sahab told through the loudspeakers, near the Santorum the Harmandir Sahab shrine.
I was asked to start very early as the border is only open until noon. My hosts took me to the Indian side of immigration, about 25 kms from Amritsar near Attari which is the last village on the Indian side and bid me farewell as there was only entry for VISA holders. It was a large and very spacious building, pink in color with an Indian flag hoisted on it. Cell phones do not work in this area for security reasons. It appeared that there were only a few people crossing that day. Me and some Pakistani guests came to India for a family wedding in Delhi. The procedure consisted of a simple verification of forms and identity, a number of stamps affixed to the papers and the usual stamp of departure from India. An Indian porter, dressed in navy blue clothes, carried my suitcase and we boarded a bus to the no man’s area on the border. Here we walked through the door and looking back I saw the enlarged image of Mahatma Gandhi and India written in English and Bharat in Hindi with the Indian tricolor.
On both sides were booths allowing visitors to witness the closing of the doors ceremony which takes place every evening at sunset. It is a colorful parade of large BSF personnel on the Indian side and equally intelligent soldiers on the Pakistan Ranger side. The two sides gesture to each other, stomping on their thick leather boots and finally drop the flags to keep them safe the night before. There were stands with chairs for visitors to the stands on 2 sides. The door on the Pakistani side was of similar dimensions, depicting a large image of Mohd Ali Jinnah, the green and white flag with a crescent, and Pakistan written in English and Urdu.
The no man’s area led to a building that was Pakistan’s immigration office in Wagha, a neighboring village complex on the Pakistani side of the border. The building was smaller in size and the porter from Pakistan who carried my bags after getting off the bus picked them up. I met the officers sitting on the desk and greeted them and presented my papers and passport. They asked me to wait because there had been a power failure and their computers were not operational. During this time, while scanning my papers, one of the officers asked me if I was a doctor and if so, my specialty.
Once he found out that I was a cardiologist involved in angioplasty procedures, he became very sympathetic. He was himself a patient with 2 stents placed by doctors in Lahore. He showed me his prescription and resolved many questions. I was also talking about a bureau de change, which offered to change Indian currency into Pakistani currency at better rates. According to the rules, only foreign currencies (US dollars or euros) can be exchanged officially. During this time, the power was restored and I was able to go through my formalities and go out. I was greeted by 2 senior executives from SERDIA who came to pick me up, Dr Rizwan and Mr Qauum. We got into their car and drove to reach Lahore.
On the way, we saw the Itchogil Canal and its fortified sea wall which was built by Pakistan to protect Lahore from an Indian invasion. It was a lot in the news in 1965 during the Indo Pak War which I remembered was a battleground for a few days. Being a sensitive point, I did not ask any questions other than confirming that it was the same channel. We reached the Pearl Continental hotel where I was staying. A typical five star hotel where I checked in. My hosts left me and came back in the evening to show me around.
We went to the very historic Lahore Fort built by the Mughals with some similarities to the Red Fort in Delhi. It is much larger with many sections including the Deewan e Aam and Deewan-e-Khaas, as well as beautiful patterns and carvings on the walls and ceilings. They had hired an Alam Khan guide, to show me the historical points. I was more interested in telling him about his life and his family. We became friends and continued to chat on Facebook for a while after I returned. Towards the end of the tour of the Fort, we also saw the additions made by Maharaja Ranjit Singh whose dynasty succeeded the Mughals before the British took over in the form of a museum. His portrait and the mummified horse impressed me the most.
It was getting late at night and I was recommended to accompany them to Food Street near the fort. This area which had been recently renovated by the Sharif government is a much sought after restaurant in Lahore. I found several buildings there with Punjabi Hindu names, a few had Hindu god idols. Most of them having been converted into restaurants. We took an outdoor table in a balcony facing the fort. The selection of dishes was a very difficult exercise given the choices in the chef’s recommendations. I had “Mutton Handi” and Lahori fish with Lahori paratha, what a delicious meal. On the way back we passed the Anarkali Bazaar, my dad had mentioned it as the place of the books. There were a lot of people and I wasn’t interested in the available books so we came back for the night’s sleep and preparations for my 2 classes the next day. The first conference was held at the Punjab Heart Institute. This is a large 347-bed tertiary care unit that cares for cardiac patients and has facilities for advanced angioplasty, bypass, valve replacement and a pediatric unit for young people. children and infants. The director of the institute and head of the cardiology service greeted me and introduced me to the gathering of doctors before giving my speech.
The presentation was followed by good questions and interactive comments. The evening conference was held in a five star hotel and was very well received. The audience at the post-conference dinner told me that they liked the way I spoke and preferred me to the European speakers who were often sponsored and they found a lot of bondage with me.
(To be continued….)
(DR. Upendra Kaul isDistinguished Cardiologist, Padma Shri Award Recipient and Dr BC Roy)